Reviews 2014

儿童文学“分化期”研究 [Research into Children’s Literature in the Differentiating Period]

儿童文学“分化期”研究 [Research into Children’s Literature in the Differentiating Period]. Ziqiang Zhu. Nanning: Jieli Publishing House, 2013. 342 pages. ¥32.00 (paperback).

Modern Chinese children’s literature has shaken off the pressure of political circumstances, which means it has become liberated from its function of propagating the dominant ideology. In the 21st century it is diverse and thriving, which in turn necessitates constructing theories of new genres, developing new ways of evaluating popular children’s literature as it is influenced by the market, and applying children’s texts to promote literacy. Ziqiang Zhu’s latest book (in Chinese), 儿童文学“分化期”研究(Research into Children's Literature in the Differentiating Period), introduces the concept of "the Differentiating Period" to study the phenomena of Chinese children’s literature in the 21st century.

The study is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 puts forward the key term "the differentiating period." Borrowing the biological concept of "differentiation," related to how original stem cells gradually mature and differentiate into various tissues and organs, Zhu points out that the evolution of Chinese children's literature in the 21st century is a balanced development towards maturity. For Zhu, differentiation is an inevitable law of the development of children's literature, propelling it to become diverse and multi-functional. Therefore, as Zhu rightly argues, "the Differentiated Period" is the crucial period in the establishment of the discipline of children’s literature (13). Children’s literature needs to break through the barriers between itself and other subjects and integrate elements from related disciplines to form "an interdisciplinary community of children’s literature" (Zhu 16). Zhu very accurately outlines the four differentiations of Chinese children’s literature: fantasy grew out of fairy tales as an independent genre; picture books gained their own identity after being part of young children’s literature; children’s literature has gradually established itself in literacy education; popular children’s literature has separated itself from classical literary works and expanded rapidly.

The remaining four chapters elaborate on the four differentiations, exploring the reasons for their emergence, as well as their manifestations, problems and solutions. In Chapter 2, Zhu discusses the differences between the fairy tale and fantasy, commenting on the origins of both genres, worldviews they reflect and methods of representation. He analyses typical works of native Chinese fantasy and points out that the high status of the genre which stimulates the spirit of imagination has substantially transformed Chinese children's literature, once lacking imagination. Chapter 3 discusses the birth and remarkable development of native picture books in mainland China since 2000 and points out that the lack of originality is its biggest weakness. He introduces representative theories of picture books from Japan (where he studied) and interprets masterpieces of international picture books, such as William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), Peter Spier’s Rain (1982) and so on, from the perspectives of philosophy, psychology, aesthetics and reader response theory. He also argues that the confidence of children’s literature as a field should come especially from the appreciation of young children's literature, which is often referred to as "pediatrics" because its potential resides in characteristics that are best summed up as "less is more." Chapter 5 is on popular children’s literature: Zhu argues for its value, which has been fiercely debated at the beginning of the 21st century. Zhu’s critical attitude is dialectical: for him, popular children’s literature is a wonderland for children’s spirit. It is full of humor and balances vulgarity with elegance, as well as transforming stereotypical plots and defying stereotypical expectations. It is timely and important that he seeks to establish a separate theory of popular children’s literature to clarify the qualities and status of this genre.

Chapter 4 is on children’s literature in Chinese education. He insists that children’s literature should be the main resource and method of teaching Chinese in primary school owing to the sense of ecological childhood permeating children’s texts. Children’s literature is a bridge connecting children’s culture and school culture. This is both a provoking and feasible suggestion for educators. His idea is related to his definitions of children’s literature: "The real children-oriented children’s literature should recognize and explore the value of human nature in children’s life and should liberate and develop children from their own original life desires. The adult writers should integrate themselves into the liberation to maintain and enrich valuable qualities of their human nature" (26, my translation). Zhu’s realistic concern about why and how utilize children’s literature to improve Chinese education in primary school shows his commitment to constructing healthy childhood culture.

Research into Children’s Literature in the Differentiating Period is a powerful testimony to the recent development of contemporary Chinese children’s literature and its interdisciplinary applications even if it has minor faults. It would probably be more logical to rethink the order of the chapters: Chapter 2, 3 and 5 are all about genres, while Chapter 4 relates to the practical fields. Besides, there is no conclusion following the five chapters, so the author’s arguments about differentiations and other fundamental questions are not summarized clearly enough. Another pity is that in some chapters he only raises questions without further addressing them. For example, he attempts to construct genre theories of fantasy and popular children’s literature but he does not provide sufficient theoretical suggestions. Nevertheless, Zhu’s book contains numerous stimulating insights into differentiations which leave ample room for future theoretical and practical research. Finally, although it focuses on Chinese children’s literature, readers from other countries might draw some parallels between problems and solutions in the development of children’s literature in their countries (should the book be translated into other languages).

Fengxia Tan
Nanjing Normal University, China